No. 35 October 2003

The Hamam: Sacred Springs

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Karen-Claire Voss No. 35 October 2003

The Hamam – Sacred Springs

The hamam experience that one can still enjoy throughout the Middle East has its roots in the ancient Mother Goddess culture in Anatolia and dates back to the Neolithic period.  This is the point of origin of the contemporary gelin hamam (bridal bath) in Turkey, for example.  Together with her female friends and family, the bride to be goes to the hamam to be washed and massaged.  She anoints herself with perfume, and beautifies herself with cosmetics, in much the same way as the goddess Inannna prepared herself for her conjugal union with the shepherd god, Dumuzzi.  In the hamam, sensuality and spirituality are inextricably melded together. 

Western stereotypes trivialize the tradition of hamam culture, but in fact, this ritual bathing possesses enormous depth and meaning.  Centuries after the demise of the goddess tradition women were still able to enter the hamam and experience a uniquely private space.  Always a place set aside for physical as well as spiritual renewal, the hamam became the inviolate space where women could retreat to go deep inside themselves, to talk with other women and trade news or gossip, or simply to rest.  Frequently, especially in the old days, women brought food to share with others in the hamam.  They also played musical instruments and danced.   This still happens on occasion. 

The feeling of the hamam as being a space set apart persists.  Invariably a retreat from the pressures of daily life you emerge with renewed energy and the sense that life is once again possible. 

The Çemberlitaş Hamam in Istanbul is considered one of the very best examples of a classical hamam.  Nur-u Banu Valide Sultan, the mother of Murat III and the wife of Selim II, caused it to be built in 1584.  There is some controversy as to whether or not the great architect Mimar Sinan actually had a hand in its construction, but it appears that he did draw the plans for it.  The building, however, is magnificent, irrespective of who actually built it. 

Both the men’s and the women’s baths are located under a central dome.  When you lie on your back on the heated göbek taşı (the central marble stone where massage is done) and look upwards, your eyes are caught by slanting rays of light coming from dozens of small, round windows in the dome, shimmering like so many luminous heavenly bodies.  Closing your eyes, you are lulled by the murmuring voice of your masseuse (if you are a woman) or your masseur (if you are a man) and the sounds of running and splashing water.  All of the tensions and strains in your body flow out along with the water being poured over you.  Afterwards, you are free to lie on the stone for as long as you like.  An attendant will bring water or fruit juice if you desire, a good idea, since after the hamam it is important to replenish fluids. 

I myself prefer to go to a hamam tourists never go to because while Çemberlitaş is undeniably beautiful (as is the famed Cağlolu hamam) I am not comfortable with either the high prices or the fact that I know that what I am seeing is a show, and therefore not genuine.  For years now I have gone to a small hamam tucked away on a side street in Beşiktaş. Only Turkish women go there.  It isn’t elaborately decorated but it is very clean and has the requisite marble interior and tiny round windows in the domed ceiling.  I generally go two or three times a month and it is an important part of taking care of myself (right up there with going to the coiffeur and having my hair done and getting a manicure and a pedicure).  It is also a critically important part of my taking care of my psychological and spiritual well being. 

As with anything else, I have developed my own routine.  Before leaving the house I pack my bag making sure I have all the requisite stuff:  my own soap, a washcloth (I use the traditional crotched kind), a pumice stone for my feet, a kese (a bathing mitt for scrubbing the body.  Mine is thin and not like the heavy fiber ones the bath attendants use to scrub me with, although I am trying to get a hold of one of those.  I am told that the best come from Siirt, a town in east Turkey), toothpaste and toothbrush, two towels—one for my body and one for my hair), shampoo and creme rinse, wooden slippers (again, very traditional), a bez (a piece of woven cotton used to wrap yourself in) and a tas, the small bowl used to pour water on yourself.  (I don’t use plastic.  Mine is antique copper.) 

When I go to the hamam I find an empty locker (you lock your belongings inside it and bring the key into the bath with you), take off my clothes, wrap myself in my bez, sit down and have a cigarette and make small talk with whoever happens to be there.  Then, yavaş, yavaş (slowly, slowly) I go inside and find a small cubicle of my own.  I fill the marble basin to overflowing with hot water and use the tas to scoop up water and pour it all over myself.  I scrub my feet with the pumice stone.  Then I go to the central marble stone which is heated from underneath and lie down on my stomach, waiting for the woman attendant to come and give me a kese (the scrubbing with a coarse mitt that always leaves an unbelievable amount of curled up gray pieces of dead skin all over your body) and a full body massage (which is done with my washcloth and soap and her hands, both).  She shampoos my hair, massages my scalp and then uses a large basin to pour hot and cold water all over me.  The whole process takes about twenty minutes and afterwards I always wind up feeling energized and full of hope, both.    

Then I return to my cubicle and privately luxuriate in the steam and the heat for a bit more before heading back out to the dressing area.  I dry myself off, rub cream all over my body, get dressed and leave.  Recently there has been a zam—meaning an increase in the price, but it’s still unbelievably cheap—only 15,000,000 TL (today, that’s about $10.) 

The most deeply satisfying thing for me about my hamam ritual (and it definitely is a ritual) is my knowing this is something women have done for thousands and thousands of years.  It is undeniably true that women throughout the Middle East know everything about taking care of their bodies and making themselves beautiful.  They also know—at least deep down—that water has purifying properties.  It not only makes you physically clean but it clears away the other levels of your being as well, renewing you psychologically, emotionally and spiritually.   

Although some young women do go to the hamam many of the women who go there are older.  Even grandmothers go.  I have seen incredibly elderly women there.  I have learned that for the most part, the younger generation doesn’t like the hamam.  If they do anything they will go to the saunas at the five-star hotels or the expensive health clubs.  This to me is another sign that we are definitely going the wrong way here in Turkey.  It is yet another example of how we are turning our backs on our own culture here and I think it is a great mistake.  How many times have I said in the space of this column that while we should be ready to be open to new technologies and new ways of doing and thinking we should take great care not to lose our old ways of being?  Well, this is just a thought, for what its worth.  I won’t burden you with any more philosophy today. 

Have a good month.

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Contact Les Arts Turcs Gallery in Sultanahmet for information about their new HAMAM TOUR.  
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No.1- April 2000 No.11 April 2001 No. 20 July 2002 No 29 April 2003
No.2 June 2000 No.12 May 2001 No. 22 September 2002 NO 30 MAY 2003
No.3 July/August 2000 No. 13 June 2001 No. 23   October 2002  NO 31 JUNE 2003
No.5 October 2000 No.14 July 2001 No 24 November 2002 NO 32 JULY 2003
No.7 December 2000 No.15 August 2001 No 25 DECEMBER  2002 NO 33 August 
No.8 January 2001
(No. 8 Ocak 2001 - Türkçe tercume
NO 16 September 2001 No 26 January 2003 No 34 September 
No.9 February 2001 No. 17 April 2002 No 27 February 2003 No 35 October 
No.10 March 2001 NO 19 JUNE 2002 No 28 March 2003 No 36 January 2004

No 37 February - March 2004 No 38 April 2004

 

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